Tag Archives: Patagonia Adventure Expeditions

Local Issues with Global Connections

Last week my Alpine of the Americas partner, Jonathan Byers, touched down in Santiago, Chile and made his way south to the tiny Gaucho town of Perto Bertrand to set-up base camp for the next five months. After two weeks, he’s already taught glaciology on the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet, to high school students from Nido de Aguilas, an international school in Santiago. He’s helping them understand how their own homes are connected to these ice sheets, even though they are countless horizons away.

Yet we don’t have to travel across the world to see these changes. They are right here at home. Hurricane Sandy has been a huge lesson for the North East Coast and unfortunately for many people recognizing these changes takes them coming and knocking on our doors.  Even here in San Francisco, we have been touched and reminded how vulnerable we are.  In these challenging times it is rewarding to see is the humanity that arises when we are faced with a collective struggle.

The Earth’s changing climate is affecting us all but in many unique and unpredictable ways. Alpine of the Americas goal is to use simple, repeatable, and useful observations to help us tell the story of how our environments are changing. Few people read the scientific papers that tell us how the world is changing, so we strive to generate the content that stimulates conversations of how local communities must adapt to and mitigate climate change.

What this ultimately requires are local, personal connections. Its been 6 weeks since Jonathan and I took a group of Presidians to Yosemite to repeat historic photos of the Dana Glacier to be the first beings to witness the Sierra Nevada’s changes from a this unique perspective. This group became participants by capturing images that can tell the story of how our changing snowpack is affecting Californians today.

Morgan Matthews looks down on a lake below Mt. Dana

Morgan Matthews looks down on a lake below Mt. Dana

While these glaciers are an important legacy of past ice ages their value lies in how they are indicators of less water being stored in snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.  These mountains are the sole water source in the late summer for Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which provides 25% of the fresh drinking water for the City of San Francisco.  While these glaciers seem remote and disconnected from daily life, they are directly connected to the faucets that millions of people depend on every day. This week, the outcome of Proposition F will determine if the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will spend $8 million to determine the feasibility of removing this dam.

We honor our participants who create this story through photographs, who tell it to help others understand that the safety and security of our lives depends on how we relate to the world.

In Chile, Patagoinia’s glaciers are diminishing too, but this is only an indicator of a larger story. Jonathan is now based at the heart of Chile’s largest environmental and social debate. Downstream from his guide cabin at Patagonia Adventure Expeditions, is the second largest alpine Ice Cap in the world. Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) from the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet periodically discharge enormous masses of water down this already voluminous river. Yet downstream hidroAysen plans to build two hydrodams on the Baker River to generate energy for Chile’s copper mines thousands of miles north in the Atacama desert, even though the this high desert has the world’s highest yields for solar energy. Needless to say, hidroAysen’s risky investment of placing two dams on Rio Baker’s unstable hydrology is being criticized in Chile.

Santiago_Protests_QProtests against the proposed Baker and Pascua River Dams in Santiago last month. Photo by James Q Martin jamesmartin.com

The Nido de Aguilas students dream of an economy in which they can thrive. Economic progress is necessary, but unsustainable growth doesn’t necessarily create the desired end. Will 1,864 miles of power lines through Chile’s National Parks and/or into neighboring Argentina justify bringing energy to Santiago and the copper mines to the north, when alternatives exist? We’re skeptical. Alpine of the Americas helps individuals become part of the conversation, to stimulate discourse that influences decision makers. We do not claim to know the answers, but when faced with a crisis, we believe that people can work together to be proactive and create positive solutions for our changing world.

Conservation and Development in Patagonia: An Alternative Vision

“Well what happens when you get to the edge of the cliff.  Do you take one step forward or do 180° turn and take one step forward?  Which way are you going?  Which is progress?  The solution to many of the world’s problems maybe to turn around and to take a forward step.  You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”

–Yvon Chouinard

I’ve been taking a bit of a break in February from rephotography to explore the current state of conservation in Patagonia.  Right now is a fascinating time to be here as this region faces many options for future development.

The big question here and in many other places in the world is: How can a country that is faced with national and international development pressures develop in a way that respects the local environment and people while still contributing to the national economy and allowing the improvements in quality of life that the people want?

At the beginning of February I walked the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT) with Jonathan Leidich, founder and guide of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions.  He came to Chile about 20 years ago looking for a blank spot on the map and found that in Puerto Bertrand.  Over the last two decades of living there he has developed a deep connection to the town and with gauchos living in remote valleys, a life virtually unchanged in the last century.  Through working with these rural estancias he has built a trail that follows the watershed loop from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field to the Baker River.  In walking up windswept valleys, crossing a major glacier, passing active glacier research sites, and ending at Sol de Mayo, his working ranch 35km from the nearest road, guests get a deep experience of “real” Patagonia.

It is immediately clear that Jonathan is not interested in standard tourism development.  His trips are limited to six guests at a time and the infrastructure is minimal to give guests a real experience interacting with the beauty and the challenges of Patagonia.  He works with scientists to support cutting edge research in geology and ecology, and works with education groups to bring students into the mountains to learn about glaciers and the beginnings of watersheds.

Just across the Rio Baker valley from the Aysen Glacier Trail is the Future Patagonia National Park.  This former estancia, Valle Chacabuco, was purchased by Kris Tompkins and the organization Conservacion Patagonica.  They have been removing the fences and ranch infrastructure to restore native habitat and building up infrastructure to turn it over to the Chilean government as a national park.  A huge undertaking, and one that is faced with many difficulties, from public acceptance to having no precedent for restoring Patagonian grasslans.  They are working on developing a volunteer program to get visitors, mostly Chileans, involved in the restoration of the park with the hope that in the future these people will be advocates for it’s preservation.  Their goal is to get this park to be as large of a draw as Torres del Paine, creating jobs in the local economy in a way that does not depend on resource extraction.

This all is set in a background of the recent protests in the Aysen Region of Chile where people are protesting about a wide range of things from the development of international fishing and the proposed construction of five major dams to high gas prices.  Things are changing in Aysen and clearly the residents do not like how they are changing.

How does this all fit together?  In a region with significant natural resources, it either faces continued development of hydroelectric dams, mines, tree plantations, and salmon farming or it needs to figure out a more sustainable way to contribute to the economy of Chile.  An alternative vision to an economy based on resource extraction would be an economy based on resource enjoyment.  By developing infrastructure to allow large scale tourism, the Aysen region has the potential to become one of the most popular areas in Chile and Argentina.While that would require sacrificing the quiet nature of the region, people will have to decide.

We all share a future together.  How do we want that future to be?

 

 

 

*Note about photographs –  You may notice JB watermarks appearing on photographs throughout this site.  I’m not trying to prevent people from enjoying my work, I’ve just had some issues with photo rights.  Please contact me at jonathan.at.alpineamericas.com if you are interested in purchasing prints of any of these photos.